CARS & BIKES ARCHIVE:
499: Environmental charge
The futuristic electric-and-gasoline hybrid Toyota Alphard aims to take
the financial strain out of owning a large van, while reducing emissions to
boot. Justin Gardiner takes one for a cruise.
497: Thrills and spills
The next two weekends feature Japan's two biggest Grand Prix races, the
Pacific Moto GP, and the final round of the Formula 1 Championship. Justin Gardiner
gets pole position.
495: Time warp
It was christened the Japanese Ferrari when it was launched way back in
1991. Justin Gardiner reckons the intended compliment still doesn't do justice
to Honda's NSX.
493: Point to point
Just how much faster is a 1,000cc superbike than a 50cc scooter in our sprawling
megalopolis? Justin Gardiner borrowed a few Aprilia bikes to find out.
491: Future classic
The Audi TT Roadster has become the archetypal convertible of the decade,
with good looks matched by great handling. Justin Gardiner gets behind the wheel.
489: Name value
Toyota's Lexus is one of the most respected brands in the West, but almost
unheard of in its home country. Justin Gardiner wonders why.
487: Revolutionary ride
Mazda proudly proclaims that its RX-8 is peerless, and for once the claim
is more than marketing hype. Justin Gardiner revs it up.
485: Thinking big
Whats behind the astonishing popularity of oversized scooters on Tokyos
roads? Justin Gardiner and three veteran motorcyclists aim to find out.
483: Off the beaten path
Hondas Element harks back to the days when a 4x4s interior could
be washed down with a hose. Justin Gardiner goes for a spin.
481: Track days
Tokyo offers amateur racers the chance to prove that theyre the next
Michael Schumacher. Justin Gardiner hits the speedways.
479: My Fairlady
The Datsun 240Z changed the fortunes of Nissan Motors back in 1969. This
year, the new 350Z heads up their international line-up for the 21st century.
Justin Gardiner reports.
477: Small is better
Justin Gardiner gets the scoop on scooters to fit every taste and budget.
475: Two for the price of one
Justin Gardiner drives two cars that can fit into a single parking space,
the Smart K and the Suzuki Twin.
473: Multiple personality
In a world of nigh-on-identical minivans, Fiats Multipla dares to
be different. Justin Gardiner drives the distinctive import.
471: Days at the races
Honda, the traditional Japanese champions of motorsports in Japan, are facing
a tough challenge on their home turf. Justin Gardiner looks forward to what
promises to be a bumper year for racing enthusiasts.
469: The ride stuff
Just in time for spring, Don Morton tells you how and where to choose the perfect
467: Most impressive
Justin Gardiner tools around in Subaru's Impreza, the automotive equivalent
of a mild-mannered bloke who turns unruly after a few pints.
465: Outside the box
Justin Gardiner mourns the passing of the Toyota HiACE, a campsite favorite
and the best of a dying breed.
463: Cyber Cypha
Justin Gardiner finds that Toyota's latest super-mini not only takes you
out to dinner, but helps you decide where to go.
461: Award magnet
Mazda's new mid-size Atenza is attracting accolades the world over. Paul
Thompson zoom-zoomed along to find out why.
459: Down the road
After a year of cute cars, 2003 promises more power, pace and raw sex appeal.
Justin Gardiner peers into his crystal ball.
453: Fleet of foot
Japan's convoy of quirky emergency vehicles includes everything from mopeds
to the country's fastest cars
451: Truck and treat
Paul Thompson tracked down the latest automotive trends from the 36th Tokyo
Off the beaten path
harks back to the days when a 4x4s interior could be washed down with a
hose. Justin Gardiner goes for a spin.
design brief for the Element was simple: make a car for surfers and outdoorsmen.
No need for something with enough off-road ability to make it safely across Borneo,
but the vehicle should cope with treacherous surfaces and the driver shouldnt
be embarrassed to park between a Jeep and a Land Rover.
The result is as
simple as it is unusual. Based on the tried and testedand extremely popularHonda
Compact Runabout Vehicle (CR-V), the Element boasts squared-off, Jeepish looks.
The rugged appearance continues through to the interior. The dash wouldnt
suffer from being cleaned with a scrubbing brush, the seats are made of water-resistant
fabric, and the floor is devoid of carpet; tough-looking rubber takes its place.
Externally, plastic wings and fenders provide a strong, purposeful look and are
practical in that theyre cheap to replace should they get snagged on a tree
stumpor, as is more likely, a shopping cart. Somehow, perhaps due to those
dark gray wheel wells, the 16 wheels manage to look bigger than they are,
lending the Element an off-roader look without the associated ground clearance,
which means its no harder to get into and out of than a regular family minivan.
utilitarian interior offers few surprises|
hood lurks a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder gas engine that until now has only been available
in North American CR-Vs. The powerplant is good for 160hp, but it lacks the torque
of true bush-whacking off-roaders. Typically Honda, the engine revs very high
but is, thankfully, not intrusively whiny at highway speeds. In regular conditions,
power is fed through the front wheels alone, but if the transmission detects spin,
the rear wheels get to share the burden. This works well on loose surfaces, particularly
when climbing, but the clever gearbox doesnt notice when the front wheels
have lost grip while braking. This can lead to those sickening straight-on slides
on steep downhill ice or mud patches that are a characteristic of front-wheel-drive
cars. Unfortunately, 4WD cannot be selected manuallythus, the Element is
not a true 4x4so care should be taken on the return trip from ski slopes.
The most distinctive aspect of the Elements design is its rear-hinged
doors, a la Mazdas RX-8 and the latest Rolls Royce. Front-hinged doors have
been de rigueur since the 50s, as theyre very difficult to open when
a car is at speed, while a clumsy passenger can open a rear-hinged one because
the wind will catch it. Thus, the nickname suicide doors. The Element
gets around this by ensuring that the back doors cannot be opened unless the front
ones are already agape. Indeed, the pillar supporting the front seatbelts is incorporated
into the rear portal, meaning that when both are opened, theres no obstruction
to entry and egress, making side-loading of awkward shapes (think surfboards)
a cinch. Those doors open to almost 90 degrees too, further improving access.
rear-hinged back doors add a distinctive element|
is a flaw in this plan, though. When trying to load stuff into the car in a tight
parking lot, one must, in order to reach the back seat, first open the front door.
This means getting trapped in a box between the doors, the Element and the neighboring
car. How is one supposed to reach the shopping cart, suitcases, or the person
passing the stuff to be loaded? The standard design on vehicles like this involves
sliding doors, but Hondas engineers reckoned such appendages reek of soccer
mom minivansand went out of their way to avoid them. Form over function,
American motoring journalists have also queried the safety
of doors that cannot be opened at any time in the event of an accident. Making
matters worse, the Elements rear windows only roll down a couple of centimeters.
Despite the cars high roofline and airy interior, the back seat area is
a claustrophobes nightmare.
The back bench itself is divided in two,
and after being folded flat can be swung up to the sides of the rear compartment,
yielding a rubber-coated deck large enough to swallow a decent-sized bookcase,
fridge and washing machine at the same time. The straps holding the seats out
of the way are not secured by the plastic hooks common in minivans, but by mountaineering-style
carbines. A nice touch, but they do tend to clatter around on the floor when the
seats are their regular position. With the head restraints removed, the front
seats can also be folded flat, which in combination with the rear provides an
almost bump-free, and surprisingly comfy, double bed. Should the occupants still
feel the need to sleep outdoors, they can use the one of the two cigar lighter-type
power points in the dashboard to run a 12V pump for their airbeds.
Elements rugged, utilitarian qualities are a welcome change from the wimpy
minivans that dominate Japans off-road market. But while Honda
have achieved their goal of making a vehicle fit for the outdoors, its quirks
may dissuade as many buyers as it attracts.
by Justin Gardiner
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Photos by Justin Gardiner